A History of the Kaweah Colony:  Crisis and Settlement

By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.

Far better that the Colony die than that it be perverted from its first great purpose of demonstrating the fact that men can govern themselves without being ‘bossed’ —without imperialism.(Burnette Haskell, ‘The Crisis’)

Well, I don’t see the necessity for so much law anyway. I am willing to chuck every law into the fire and go on as we did at first without any law. (Charles Keller, ‘The Crisis’)

The growing rift in the Kaweah Colony had to do with more than just the progression of the wagon road or the manner in which the work crews were treated. It involved a basic fundamental question vital to the future of the endeavor. If the Kaweah experiment was indeed to serve as a shining example of a Socialist society — a revolution through example — it would first have to establish a form of organization compliant with the existing laws of the land. It is interesting to note how even a self-professed anarchist became utterly concerned with such compliance. This was self-preservation taking precedence over idealism, and it also became a battle of wills between two men: Burnette Haskell and Charles Keller. The ensuing controversy over defining the legal form of organization of the Kaweah Colony more than anything defined Burnette Haskell as the Colony’s guiding force from that point forward.


In January 1887, just a few months after road construction began, Haskell went to Denver to take over a struggling newspaper, the Denver Labor Enquirer. He was serving as its West Coast correspondent when the publisher asked him to come and oversee the paper in Denver. Haskell’s own labor paper, Truth, had folded a couple years before, and he was still feeling the financial hardships Truth had handed him. Haskell had completely exhausted his personal savings and credit trying to keep the journal afloat, and as biographer Caroline Medan suggested, he was “very willing to escape his creditors” and arrived in Denver “in a borrowed overcoat and a new plug hat.”

On his way to Denver, Haskell made a detour to visit Kaweah. The Kaweah Co-Operative Colony was still, legally speaking, an informal organization. Their “avowed intention,” in Haskell’s words, “was to formulate a scheme of organization which should be based upon the doctrines taught in Gronlund’s Co-Operative Commonwealth, a scheme of pure cooperation based upon purely democratic principles,” but when Haskell visited in January, no legal plan of organization had yet been drafted.

The Executive Board, consisting of Keller, P.N. Kuss, J.G. Wright, W.J. Cuthbertson, and James Martin, set a March 1, 1887, deadline for themselves to draft something for the membership’s approval, but the deadline passed with nothing submitted. It then fell on Haskell, as legal advisor of the organization, to prepare a brief outlining his suggestions for a legal plan of organization, but by that time he had his hands full with matters in Colorado.

When Haskell arrived in Denver and saw the Enquirer’s small subscription list and the pitiful state of its finances, he sat down and cried. To save money, he lived at the newspaper office and, according to his wife, did all the work himself. He nonetheless managed to find time to examine the law and drafted his suggested plan of organization for the Executive Board back in Kaweah. He claimed his plan was then printed in the Enquirer and “sent off to the whole membership for their vote.” Whatever the outcome of that vote, if indeed any really occurred, is moot. The Executive Board failed to act upon Haskell’s plan, and while Haskell struggled in Denver to keep the failing newspaper solvent and promote the Socialist labor cause, discontent was on the rise in Kaweah.

Haskell received no word in Denver on his proposed plan of organization, which called for something along the lines of a limited partnership rather than a corporation offering public sale of stock. He did receive “certain documents accompanied by letters of protest and dissent” and learned that the Executive Board had found his “Special Partnership” plan, as he called it, impractical. They had instead, in his absence, decided on incorporation and Haskell found himself in receipt of a set of bylaws for the proposed corporation along with a ballot for members to vote for board directors. He immediately whipped off a letter of protest, and before he heard back received a telegram from dissatisfied members, requesting he return to California. This, along with a nasty case of mountain fever contracted in the unfamiliar climate, was incentive enough to leave Denver less than 10 months after arriving.


In October 1887, Haskell arrived in San Francisco and attended a meeting of that city’s members of the Kaweah Colony. As Charles Keller and James Martin were expected in San Francisco soon, they agreed a general meeting should be held to discuss “the stories and charges of imperialism and bossism against the Executive Committee.”

In November 1887, a number of meetings were held, which boiled down to a debate on whether the Kaweah Colony should organize as a corporation, where capital would be raised through the issuance of shares to be sold publicly, or a limited partnership, where selected and screened candidates would purchase non-transferable memberships in the association. Debate is a polite and perhaps not strong enough term for what transpired. A committee headed by Burnette Haskell issued a circular to the membership entitled “The Crisis,” and although it should be read for what it was — one side’s version of the story designed to influence membership — it nonetheless offers a detailed and even entertaining summary of the meetings.

At the first meeting, held in San Francisco, Haskell presented his criticisms of the corporation form and its proposed bylaws. His primary complaint with the corporation, as defined by California law, lay in the ownership of transferable shares of stock. Haskell pointed out that anyone could become members merely by purchasing a share and they could not expel them. As an example, he used Leland Stanford, one of the owners of Southern Pacific Railroad and a man who was symbolic to them of capitalist greed and political corruption.

Keller, on the other hand, strongly favored a corporation, as he felt that only through an open sale of shares could the Colony raise enough capital for their proposed operations. (There were accusations later on that Keller had actually approached none other than Leland Stanford about investing in the operation, and that Stanford had told Keller, “Go back to your Colony, and if you can change your organization into a corporation and come to me as its legal Board of Directors, authorized to sell your timber, then I will deal with you.” The accusation was far-fetched and unsubstantiated.)

Haskell then moved onto the bylaws, pointing out numerous ambiguities and contradictions, which rendered them problematic at best. Finally, after a lengthy haranguing by Haskell, a member of the Executive Board spoke:

Mr. Cuthbertson: The Board didn’t come here prepared to answer these questions. We want time to meet and consult together about our answers; we should like to have these questions written out.

Mr. Keller: Yes, a man can come in and make a speech, and make points and carry a crowd, and carry a point, and we haven’t all got the gift of gab.

Mr. Haskell:I regret my failings. But the points made will bristle just as well when put upon paper.

Mr. Keller: We are willing to concede the request of this meeting if they pass the Law Committee resolution.

Thus a Law Committee, consisting of Keller, Kuss, Cuthbertson, Redstone, and Haskell was elected and the meeting was adjourned for one week. In that next meeting, Haskell complained he had received no assistance from the rest of the Law Committee and needed a few more days in which to prepare a report that “in whole plain words” would allow the membership to “see plainly all the difficulties in the way of every form of organization, and decide which they will have.” This meeting was then adjourned with no resolution made nor any progress to report, except that now another committee was formed, this one to formulate amendments to the bylaws.


By early 1888, the opposing sides had accomplished little, but did agree on engaging the services of two judges to draw up a brief showing whether incorporation or a limited partnership would best be suited to the needs of the Kaweah Colony. The judges opined that “of the four forms of organization recognized in this state, the corporate form is alone available for the purpose in view.”

The membership heeded this advice and voted 67 to 63 in favor of the corporation, but as one newspaper described, “a small coterie of leaders in the Kaweah movement seemed ambitious to secure absolute control and took exception to [the judge’s] opinions.” Haskell organized a meeting in San Francisco that declared the corporation illegal and substituted a limited partnership company.

Another vote was held May 18, and a committee, of which there was never any shortage, met to count the votes. According to another newspaper, “all or part of the ballots for incorporation were kept back” by the committee and the limited partnership favored by Haskell won approval.

The limited objectiveness of all who recounted this episode in the development of the Kaweah Colony hampers the historian’s efforts to determine exactly what happened, but at the same time clearly illustrates the emotions and passions aroused. Of course, actions speak louder than words and when Haskell finally succeeded in establishing the limited partnership, or “Joint Stock Company,” Keller and nearly 50 other members withdrew from the Kaweah Colony. Twenty-seven of them formally entered a protest and denounced the undertaking. Many of these, such as Keller, who had done so much in establishing the Colony, were original members of the Timber Pool who had filed land claims that were still in a forced state of limbo, awaiting investigation by the government.

Regardless, the Kaweah Colony now had a legal form of organization, albeit one born in crisis. And although membership had been cut by nearly one-third, the Colony, which was ostensibly ruled by a democracy rife with committees, now had one man undeniably at the helm. As legal adviser and trustee of the newly formed company, Burnette Haskell undoubtedly reveled in the role of founding father. The enterprise, however, was crippled by the Keller exodus. While it seems to have made sense for Haskell to push for the limited partnership, the forfeiture of such strong opposition as Keller provided would be a hard loss to overcome. Think of American democracy with its system of checks and balances.


Largely the work of Haskell, the Deed of Settlement and By-Laws of Kaweah Colony was adopted March 9, 1888. It was a combination membership contract, Colony constitution, and mission statement. University of California professor William Carey Jones, who would eventually become the dean of the School of Jurisprudence at UC Berkeley, wrote a report on the Colony in 1891, which noted that the Deed of Settlement had “a number of ambiguities, resulting from a faulty construction of the sentences,” but added that its bylaws were “in general, lucid and exact.”

Simply stated, the Kaweah Colony was organized as a limited partnership, with the number of members fixed at 500. Full membership constituted a contribution of $500, thus proposed capitalization of the company was $250,000. Membership commenced upon payment of the first $10 and acceptance by the Colony trustees. Upon payment of $100 in money, a member was entitled to residence and employment on the Colony grounds. The remainder of the membership could be paid off in labor, goods, or money.

No person could hold more than one membership, but a married shareholder was entitled to two votes, one of which could be cast by the husband and one by the wife. Applicants were required to fill out a questionnaire, which set forth name, place of birth, residence, age, marital status, information on children, if any, occupation, capacity for employment, physical condition, and religious affiliation. In addition, applicants were asked if they belonged to any trade, labor, or economic organization, whether they subscribed to any labor or economic journal and, most significantly, if they had read Gronlund’s Co-Operative Commonwealth and if they believed in “cooperative spirit.” The Board of Trustees would provisionally accept or reject all applicants for membership, and those rejected would be refunded any amount of money deposited toward membership.

The “purely democratic” administration was a complicated structure of departments with their appointed superintendents reporting to a duly elected Board of Trustees, who acted as the executive body of the company. Provisions were made for referendums, imperative mandates, and initiative, and a general secretary presided over the monthly general meetings.

In addition to granting women an equal vote, other progressive provisions were outlined in the bylaws. Much of this progressive political thought was the result of the Colony leaders’ backgrounds in labor and social reform, as well as their adherence to the writings of Laurence Gronlund. These included the declaration that “eight hours shall constitute a day’s work in the Colony.” All labor paid at an exchange rate of 30 cents an hour, and time checks were issued in denominations of 10 to 20,000 minutes. The bylaws dictated that the Colony would keep a store “for the convenience of members, at which all articles of necessity can be purchased by them with the labor time checks provided by the colony.” Indeed, no member or other person was even allowed to open a store at the Colony for the sale or exchange of goods, nor could any one colonist employ another.

Historian Robert V. Hine, in his book California’s Utopian Colonies, described the projected organization as “complex, ponderous, and naïve,” and George Stewart once called it a “locomotive’s machinery on a bicycle.”  But, by 1888, families had started to arrive and settle at the road camp known as Advance, and by spring of the following year the little village of Advance boasted several dozen full-time residents. The locomotive was chugging along, ignoring or simply unaware that it rode on thin, spindly tires, and infused with an “I think I can” brand of optimism feverishly whipped up by Haskell and other loyal believers in the spirit of cooperation.

SOURCE NOTES: A circular issued by a committee headed by Burnette Haskell entitled “The Crisis” (Sequoia National Park archives) was a key source of this chapter. Caroline Medan’s thesis on Haskell was also valuable, as were Oscar Berland’s research notes and contemporary news reports in the Visalia Weekly Delta and San Francisco Chronicle. A manuscript by William Carey Jones, “The Kaweah Experiment in Co-Operation” (Visalia Public Library), which later served as basis of an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, (October 1891) was consulted as was Robert V. Hine’s seminal work on Kaweah and utopian experiments through the state, California’s Utopian Colonies (UC Press, Berkeley, California, 1983).